By Abe Hardesty
College Sports Journal
Editor's Note: This piece by a former longtime Furman beat writer originally appeared at FurmanPaladins.com and is used by permission
GREENVILLE, S.C. — In the fall of 1979, the confidence level of freshman wide receiver Gib McEachran was sinking faster than Furman's hopes of a winning season.
The Paladins had lost all four September games, and three of the defeats – including a 45-14 thrashing by Chattanooga – were dealt at supposedly-friendly Sirrine Stadium.
It was enough to make McEachran second-guess his college choice. And the confidence waned in early October, when McEachran was asked to move to cornerback.
For a freshman who had never played defense in high school, a move to one of the most difficult positions in football was a daunting task.
The transition was helped considerably by an unlikely source – Bruce Fowler, Furman's starting cornerback.
"Bruce knew that I was being moved over there to take his starting job away from him," McEachran recalled, "and yet there was no animosity. He coached me every step of the way."
"Here was a junior who had worked hard to become a starter and could see that he was going to lose that starting position to a freshman. Most guys wouldn't have reacted well to that. But he did everything he could to get me ready to play there," McEachran said, still sounding a bit surprised at the process."
"I new right then he was going to be a coach in college someday."
Fowler contributed significant playing time as a fifth defensive back and on special teams the rest of that season and in 1980.
But his greatest contribution might have been the development of McEachran and another receiver-turned-defender, Ernest Gibson.
By 1980, McEachran and Gibson were entrenched as dependable cornerbacks, and became building blocks of dominant Furman teams.
Despite the demotion, Fowler ranks that 1980 season as his the most enjoyable of his playing career.
McEachran and Gibson were centerpiece elements of a secondary that also included strong safety Chris Buono and free safety Jeff Burke.
All four became All-Southern Conference performers.
"They were better than I was," says Fowler, who shared the team lead with three interceptions in 1979 and ranked high with his 35 solo tackles in a half-season as a starter. "I wanted to play full-time, but those guys were really good."
The experience was difficult for a young man so competitive that he tried every sport in his youth and even today relishes high-intensity table tennis matches with teenage son Jake.
In preparation for life, Fowler says the loss of the starting role was a disguised benefit.
"I learned what it was like to take on a new role, and be a role player," says Fowler. "That helped me as much as anything as a coach."
It also helped, Fowler says, that during that 0-5 start of 1979, he received a first-hand glimpse of the value of positive thinking.
"Coach (Dick) Sheridan was a great communicator, and he helped me to see that I needed to have a different role," said Fowler.
"I've always thought, when it comes to your faith and everything else, that when things don't go your way, a positive attitude helps you the most," said Fowler. "We had great success and I had a great time that season."
Fowler's commitment to the team success was so high that the person who knew him best at the time, roommate/teammate Tim Sorrells, said Fowler never complained about his new role.
"Unlike a lot of kids who feel entitled to a position in that situation, Bruce never felt entitled to anything. We never had a discussion along the lines that 'this is not fair,'" Sorrells recalled. "He accepted that the new guys were good and would make our team better; and to make the most of the talent he had, Bruce had to accept a new role. Which he did."
Many believe that Furman's Southern Conference dominance that began in 1980 had its roots in that discouraging autumn of 1979.
After the 0-5 start, which included humbling defeats at the hands of old Upstate rivals Presbyterian and Wofford, the Paladins rallied in stunning fashion – beating five Southern Conference rivals in those last six games.
Had an extra-point kick not sailed wide of the upright in a 21-20 October setback at Lexington, Va., the Paladins would have claimed a share of the league championship.
"The way we finished was pretty exciting," Fowler recalled. "That last half (of the season) catapulted us to the next year."
The 1980 season was memorable for its near-perfection.
Division I-A at the time (and not eligible for a I-AA playoff bid), the Paladins were unbeaten after an opening loss to a top-10 North Carolina team, finishing a perfect 7-0 in Southern Conference play and 9-1-1 overall.
That gave Fowler's senior class, the final one recruited with Art Baker at the top of the staff, with a 26-15-3 record — the best for a Furman class since the 1930s.
Baker, who moved to The Citadel after the 1977 season, vividly recalled studying film alongside assistant coach Steve Robertson of the Mariemont (Ohio) defensive unit that spring.
His staff had used all its 50 scholarships, but in what became his final recruiting season at Furman, Baker was intrigued by a small defensive back who wanted to join the team as a non-scholarship player.
"He was a scrawny little fellow and we didn't have any more scholarships to give, but we sure liked the way he played. He had an intensity about him that you couldn't help but admire."
"When he visited, I asked him if he ate grits," says Baker.
"He said, 'what are grits?"
"I said, that's what you're gonna have to start eating if you're gonna gain some weight."
Fowler never gained much weight, but his intensity gained attention and respect. He was a member of the kickoff coverage unit that year, and gained marked strength — and football knowledge — over the next two years. That enabled him to offset his limitations in speed and size.
"You couldn't tell him he couldn't play; when you did, he was more determined to prove that he could," Baker said.
It was hardly a new role for Fowler, a sports nut who was small even by high school standards.
"I was undersized," admitted Fowler, who as a freshman carried about 150 pounds on a 5-foot-9 frame. "But I dreamed I could make it."
Football has been a big part of Fowler's life, primarily because Fowler brought more than a dream to the practice field. A mental toughness remains his trademark when he steps onto the football field.
"I was a guy who tried hard and liked it a lot," Fowler recalls. "I even enjoyed the training part of it."
The dream to play his favorite sport on the college level was fueled by the fact that he was among the smaller players at Mariemont High near Cincinnati but nonetheless earned all-conference honors in his senior season.
It heightened when Fowler found an inspiring support cast at Furman.
Sensing that Fowler's enthusiasm might be contagious, Baker encouraged him.
Secondary coach Bobby Johnson "was a tremendous encouragement from the first day," and Fowler recalls that then-offensive coordinator) Sheridan seemed to go out his way to offer encouragement.
It took Fowler by surprise that those coaches would invest precious time on a walk-on who was unlikely to be in uniform on game day.
"I had a lot of encouragement," says Fowler, who had chosen Furman primarily for its academics.
Johnson says Fowler's fortitude and work ethic commanded his attention.
"He was not real big and not real fast, but he was a determined athlete," Johnson recalls. "He put effort into learning technique and tried to do exactly what the coaches told him to do. When coaches see that, it gets their attention. He got our attention because he earned it by the way he played."
Sheridan remembers Fowler as a player with a strong work ethic "and great attention to detail.
"Nobody played smarter and nobody worked harder. He was a great role model for the other players," Sheridan says. "He's still a hard worker who pays great attention to detail, and in doing that he sets a great example for the staff."
Johnson saw the same diligence a few years later, after then-coach Jimmy Satterfield hired Fowler as a wide receivers coach.
"You could tell that he put everything he had into coaching his players. He was very thorough; he didn't leave anything to chance, and prepared his players for all the scenarios they might see on game day."
"When I had the opportunity to hire him as my defensive coordinator, I didn't hesitate. We won some big games there, and Bruce was a big part of it."
Sorrells, the son of a successful Tennessee high school coach, says Fowler's walk-on routine made scholarship players take notice.
"He was a gritty player, consistently trying to overachieve," Sorrells recalled.
"Everybody loved his intensity. He'd come to practice tremendously prepared, and go as hard as he could go. He earned playing time not because of his talent, but because he had all the intangibles that make a good player."
The same traits, Sorrells believes, continue to inspire those around him.
"He's basically the same now as a coach – he's reliable, consistent, very aggressive, and always prepared," Sorrells said. "He talks to players about dealing with the things they can control – preparation and effort. When a team buys into that, you have a chance to win some games."
Paladin Club director Ken Pettus, a linebacker coach in '77, says Fowler got attention because "he was such a fierce competitor, and so smart" as a player.
The same traits underscore his coaching routine. Pettus often watches practice sessions, which he says are marked by efficient time management and a business approach.
"He brings that Dick Sheridan/Bobby Johnson intensity," says Pettus, who coached under Sheridan at Furman and North Carolina State. "Our players practice extremely hard, play extremely hard, and study extremely hard. Bruce Fowler demands that they do, and sets the example. He practices as hard as any coach on the staff."
In addition to the Furman coaching circles, Fowler was blessed to have served under an outstanding high school coach, Jack King. Shortly after earning a Furman degree in the spring of '81, Fowler joined the staff at Wren High, where King quickly became "an incredibly positive influence" for the next three years.
When a grad-assistant spot opened on the Furman staff in '84, Sheridan turned to Fowler.
It gave him the opportunity to earn a Master's degree, and to join a staff that was deep in coaching talent.
In addition to Sheridan, whose .744 winning percentage is the highest in school history, it included four assistants (Jimmy Satterfield, Ted Cain, Johnson and Robbie Caldwell) who later became Division I head coaches.
Fowler was part of 20 wins and a Division I-AA runner-up finish in his two grad-assistant seasons, and was promoted to full-time assistant in 1986 as Satterfield's receivers coach.
He switched to the defensive side when Johnson left the staff for one year in '93, and was promoted to defensive coordinator by Johnson in '99 — the start of a three-year run that produced 30 wins, two Southern Conference championships, and a 2001 national runner-up finish.
Johnson hired Fowler as his defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt, where they were part of an historic revival in that program.
Fowler returned to Furman prior to the 2011 season, his first as a head coach on any level. In his debut, the team won six games, including surprise verdicts over Wofford and Appalachian State.
"There are a lot of adjustments," Fowler says to the head coaching role, "but it's been a lot easier (making them) here, at a place where I'm so familiar with the people and the program."
It is a place where Fowler's imprint was immediate.
"He has a passion for football, and it shows," says former All-America linebacker Kadarron Anderson, whose senior year was marked by Fowler's arrival. "He's very intense. You could tell right away that he meant business. He's exactly what Furman needs."